Who Is Mary? – Fr. Gary Pennings

Fr. Gary Pennings’ Homily August 15, 2021

“August 15th has always had a special place in my heart even as a young boy before I really understood the theology of the day. I was born and raised about a mile or two from the only approved Marian shrine in the United States, a little place in Wisconsin called Champion, a little town and I grew up within a mile or two of that place. My mom still has a house there. She lives with my brother now, but she has a house just a mile from that place and I remember my grandparents making a big deal about August 15th because people from all around the countryside would come to the chapel and as a little kid those were some of the biggest crowds I had ever seen and they would come and pray the Rosary. They’d have a large procession, the bishop would come and they would have Mass and they would have a procession with an image of Our Lady and they would walk all over the grounds praying the Rosary. It was a very celebratory feast for a young boy to see. It seemed something very important. As I grew older I noticed that whenever something bad happened within the family, whenever there someone was sick or a bad diagnosis especially the women in our family, my mom, my aunts, my grandmother, great-grandmothers, they all would rush to the chapel where they would kneel and pray the Rosary for whatever the cause was and I remember hearing as a young boy all these miraculous healings that took place by people visiting or praying in that place. It was a place that in the 1800’s the Virgin had appeared to a young Belgian girl named Adele Brise and many miraculous things happened since that day since that shrine was built.

The first reading today is from the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation and it begins at the very last lines of chapter 11 and then goes into chapter 12, but remember those chapter editions are recent editions. For most of Christian history it was just one long, there weren’t chapters and verse. Those are recent editions and it speaks of God’s temple of Heaven was opened and the Ark of the Covenant could be seen. What is the Ark of the Covenant? Now some of you may think of an Indiana Jones movie. That may be your first thing that comes to mind and actually when I was here last time the tabernacle used to be over there where the Marian statue is. That wall was open and the adoration chapel was on the other side and this tabernacle (at least I think it was this one) actually had two rods on the bottom of it and it had two angels on the top kind of built to represent or to be a model of the Ark of the Covenant. In the book of Exodus there were very detailed plans that God says, ‘You build exactly this way.’ It was to be built out of acacia wood. It was to be a certain size. It was to be covered in gold. It was to have these poles so that no one would touch it. It would have two cherubim on top of it, two angels and they were to put certain things in that back. It was thought by the ancient Jews to be the place where God dwelt on Earth very much like we understand the tabernacle as the place of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. He’s sacramentally present in the Eucharist there and they would carry that Ark on those poles into battle as their vanguard. What was in that box? Well eventually three things: first the tablets of the Ten Commandments, God’s words, his commands etched in stone. Later manna, what is it? This bread from Heaven that came and sustained the Israelites in their journey through the desert. A jar of manna was put in there and Aaron’s staff. Aaron was a symbol of priesthood and his staff was placed in there and this was thought to have great power. Now the Indiana Jones had all kinds of cosmic effects and cool effects, but the belief was that yes, God dwelt there and it was powerful.

Let’s jump to the Gospel now and we hear that Mary made haste to the hill country of Judea. Now we think in our modern ear, hmh just telling us where it is I guess, but to the Jewish ear that would have resonated because the Ark after it had been seized by the Philistines and then returned because a lot of bad things happened to the Philistines when they stole the Arc, it dwelt for awhile in the hill country of Judea near modern day Incarom, the city where Zechariah and Elizabeth dwelt and so the Jewish ear in that day would have already picked up, ‘huh what does this have to do with the Arc?’ Then it goes on to say in the Gospel that at the sound of Mary’s greeting John the Baptist danced for joy. He leapt in the womb of Elizabeth. That too would have piqued the Jewish Christian’s ear because they would remember when David got the Ark he danced with abandon as it entered Jerusalem. It would have been a reminder of David’s joy at encountering the Arc. There’s a connection here between the Ark of the Covenant and Mary. So the book of Revelation in chapter 11 mentions the Ark and then immediately the next words go on to say, ‘A great sign appeared in the sky. A woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars.’ You’ve always understood that to be an image of Mary, a queen crowned with stars transcended now with the moon under her feet and clothed with the sun. Who is this Mary? Well she’s the Arc. Early church fathers saw her as the Ark of the New Covenant because like the Old Covenant that acacia wood box with the manna and the Commandments and Aaron’s staff were thought to be the place where God dwelt, the vessel where God’s dwelling was most fully realized so too the early church in Mary saw in her not some stone tablets with God’s word on, but the living word who came down from Heaven, the incarnate son of God, the Word of God dwelling within her. They saw not some manna that had been given hundreds and thousands of years ago, but they saw now Jesus for who he said he was the living bread that had come down from Heaven. ‘Whoever eats this bread,’ Jesus said, ‘would live forever.’ and lastly not some symbol of priesthood, but the High Priest himself the one from whom all priesthood flows, so they saw this connection between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant. 

So who is Mary? Well we know her as the mother of Jesus. We know her of not divine, but human, a creature like us, but given a very special grace a very special mission to be a vessel, the Ark in which the Word of God, the Incarnate Word would be housed and would enter the world, the place where God in the flesh dwelt. The flesh he had was her flesh. She was the first disciple. Just think of that, the first one to say yes to the savior. As her child was growing in her womb she became his disciple. She bonded with her Lord in her own womb. Talk about a mystery. Talk about pondering that how she had to reflect on what that must have meant in her life. This child in me will be King of kings and Lord of lords. Through him all things have been made. She did become that first disciple. So there she’s a model for us in her humility in her saying yes in her pondering these things in her heart in her prayerfulness and in her openness to grace because remember she was one of us. She’s a creature but blessed with grace. It’s a reminder that you and I, creatures, fallen, not preserved like her but fallen, can nonetheless be transformed by grace. The Almighty can indeed do great things for us as well by grace like He did for Mary.

This feast day that we celebrate today, we celebrate a doctrine, a dogma of the Church that says Mary having completed the course of her Earthly life was assumed body and soul into Heavenly glory. Now she becomes not the model just for you and I personally, but for the model for the whole church because where she has gone we the Church, the body of Christ hope to follow, not just our souls, but our bodies as well. We are not angels. We were never meant to be pure spirits. We are embodied spirits. We were created by God with a soul and a body and those are meant to be together forever. Now death destroys that momentarily, separates that, but the cross puts it back together and gives us a glorified body in the resurrection. So this feast day is celebrating not just Mary a grace she was given, but a hope all of us hold. We look forward to our glorified bodies. Sometimes we Christians fall into this dualism that is anti-Christian, it’s a heresy, but I hear many even today in the Church at my old parish and I’ve already heard it here kind of speak of bodies as bad, soul good. That is not Catholicism. Our bodies are holy. We can do evil things with them, but they are holy. They are holy and we don’t live in that dualistic view of the material is bad. No, the Lord has entered our human body. He took on our human condition. He took on human flesh. He raised it, so we should realize that our eternal destiny is to be in a body, a glorified one. Mine’s gonna have a 32” waist, broad shoulders and curly hair! But we’ll be in a perfected body. That’s our destiny and we’ll enjoy that forever. If you’re a male, you’ll be a male eternity. If you’re a female, you’ll be a female for eternity in your glorified body. 

The second reading today says, ‘For just as in Adam all died so too in Christ shall all be brought to light, but each in the proper order. Jesus is the first fruits and then Mary was given a special grace to be taken up and she has appeared over the centuries to people in her glorified body telling them the same message, ‘Turn your heart to my son. Turn away from sin. Repent. Pray, pray, pray. Embrace His sacrifice. Offer penances. Embrace the cross and trust in His love and mercy.’ Her message no matter where, what apparition’s been it has always been pretty consistent with those themes, so Mary the model for all of us individually and for the Church. She remains our vanguard, the one who is taken into battle, the spiritual battle. I’m not an exorcist, but I talk to the exorcist and they tell me that the demons hate the Virgin Mary. They tremble at her name. She is powerful. She’s a warrior queen and she continues to war prayerfully not with the weapons of the evil one, but with the weapons of God, love and mercy and prayer in humility and commitment. She continues to war for us. She gives us great hope. ‘Blessed are you,’ Elizabeth said, ‘who believe that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ And blessed you, blessed are each one of you who believe that the promises made by Jesus, the promises of His cross and resurrection, blessed are you if you believe that they will be fulfilled. Mary said, ‘My soul proclaims the greatness.’ Another translation is, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord.’ Her life pointed always to Jesus. Our lives should point to Jesus. When we encounter others we should be an instrument of God’s to lead them to Jesus through our own relationship of love with them. ‘The Almighty has done great things for me and Holy is His name.’ Mary said. We should echo that same blessing. The Almighty great things for us. He claimed us and justified us in baptism. He sustains us with the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. He redeems us over and over, forgives us over and over in the sacrament of reconciliation. Holy is His name and he has remembered His promise of mercy to those who seek that mercy. The little book, the Magnificat, had a great reflection at the end by a fellow named Caryll Houselander. It says,

‘We do not know where, what or how Heaven is, but this is what we do know. It is very nearly all that we know about Heaven. In Heaven Our Lady is with God. Our Lady’s body is there and the body of Christ is there and Our Lady’s soul and the soul of Christ in His divinity. We can realize this only insofar as we realize it through its effects upon the world. There before God is humanity, our humanity, but innocent humanity in all its primal loveliness. (That’s what Mary represents) Humanity with which the spirit of God is in love.’

What a beautiful reflection. This celebration of Mary assumed body and soul into Heaven is a reason for you and I to have great hope because indeed the Almighty has done great things for us.”